Treasured Isle

This time next year an RV campground will occupy Virginia Key. Say sayonara to one of the city's last patches of green.

He expects the campground to be state of the art, a modern attraction set in natural ruins. "We have this wonderful environment in the heart of the city," Luft says. "And we can make it a better place." Luft's vision includes clean, properly maintained, supervised beaches open to the public. Maybe a few freshwater swimming pools, maybe a water theme park (or, as he prefers to call it, a "recreational swimming facility"). Basketball, tennis, volleyball courts. Playgrounds. Child care and indoor kids activities. Hiking and bike trails. An amphitheater with a stage and fixed seating. Trams and shuttles. Diving and fishing tour boats with accompanying dockage. A mini-golf course. Food and beverage concessions. Restrooms and pay phones and laundry machines. Trailer storage. And those 500 campsites. Luft even wants the RV sites to be hooked up for cable TV.

"Imagine getting off work on a Friday afternoon," he says. "If you're going to drive to a recreational campground in a natural environment, simply getting back and forth will take most of the weekend. With Virginia Key, you're there in five minutes. You can call ahead and have your trailer taken out of storage. You get there in the evening, maybe bring a bottle of wine and a good book. And now you have your whole weekend to spend in this wonderful, natural environment."

On the northeast part of the island, down a dirt path next to the sewer plant, a model shoot is taking place at Jimbo's, the rustic headquarters of James "Jimmy the Shrimper" Luznar, the uncrowned king of Virginia Key's handful of residents. Manatees favor the lagoon at Jimbo's -- known variously as Lamar Lake, Duck Lake, and Shrimper's Lagoon -- and sea turtles nest on these shores. A few gulls tarry on the rocky sand. Two pelicans fly overhead.

Mayor Clark also favors the spot, sitting with the afternoon beer drinkers and grizzled storytellers at Jimbo's. Within spitting distance is a tableau often used as a setting for fashion shoots: Brightly painted shacks and a psychedelic school bus mix with crippled cars, dogs of assorted shapes and sizes, a few immobile RVs, and Jimbo's headquarters, a small building with a bocce court on one side and tanks for live bait shrimp on the other. There's a smoker for fish, and chunks of marlin and fillets of salmon are for sale inside, right next to wooden barrels filled with ice and beer and soda. Vice mayor J.L. Plummer says he sometimes visits to eat Jimbo's smoked fish.

Luznar, proprietor and veteran shrimper, sits next to hizzoner on the patio, sipping RC Cola and regaling the others with his colorful analyses of everything from shrimp migration to how the canal system has ruined the redfish population. Luznar came to the area almost 40 years ago, setting up a shrimping operation where the Miami Herald building now sits. When the Herald bought that property in the mid-Fifties, Luznar moved over to Virginia Key. Between the games of bocce he never seems to lose, Luznar, wiry and spry and full of vigor at age 67, recalls the time 25 years ago that a manatee washed into the lagoon, a gaping hole, surely cut by some boat, crippling the animal. Two calves swam at the injured sea cow's side. He patiently nursed the big mammal back to health, running to the grocery store for lettuce and cabbage to supplement its sea-vegetation diet.

"We get manatees in here all the time," Luznar says. "You'll see seven and eight at a time." One regular visitor is the old mama manatee whose life he saved long ago. "Yessir, she comes in every year. When I found her she laid out there [in the lagoon] for two months, with two babies. And she'd just roll over to where the babies could nurse. She comes back every year and she has babies with her every time, always two. She's good and healthy."

Over on the east side of the key, beyond a NO TRESPASSING sign where the public part of the beach area ends, rests a solitary man on a chaise longue. Three women and a baby emerge from a sedan parked near a grassy area studded with built-in barbecue grills and picnic tables. They watch the crystalline waters tiding up between the boulder jetties (known as groins) that segment the beach every 20 or 30 yards. A park worker chases two anglers from their fishing spot at the end of one of the jetties, while a young couple strolls the sand, beachcombing on the rocky shoreline. If they were to walk the entire beachfront, they'd reach the key's northern tip, where they would face the red-tiled buildings and cranes (machines, not birds) of Fisher Island, with the Port of Miami, right beyond Fisher, just a quick skiff ride across Norris Cut.

Welcome to Jack Luft's "wonderful, natural environment" A pre-campground. Of course not everyone shares Luft's vision. Some people think the impending development of Virginia Key, even a campground, stinks as much as the island's sewage treatment plant. They contend that birds, dunes, mangroves, and possibly even a buried prehistoric archaeological site will be killed or destroyed by the project.

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